"To be sure, to be sure — her party! I am going myself. I almost forgot it, upon my life."
Eustacia's face flagged. There was to be a party at the Yeobrights'; she, naturally, had nothing to do with it. She was a stranger to all such local gatherings, and had always held them as scarcely appertaining to her sphere. But had she been going, what an opportunity would have been afforded her of seeing the man whose influence was penetrating her like summer sun! To increase that influence was coveted excitement; to cast it off might be to regain serenity; to leave it as it stood was tantalizing.
The lads and men prepared to leave the premises, and Eustacia returned to her fireside. She was immersed in thought, but not for long. In a few minutes the lad Charley, who had come to ask permission to use the place, returned with the key to the kitchen. Eustacia heard him, and opening the door into the passage said, "Charley, come here."
The lad was surprised. He entered the front room not without blushing; for he, like many, had felt the power of this girl's face and form.
She pointed to a seat by the fire, and entered the other side of the chimney-corner herself. It could be seen in her face that whatever motive she might have had in asking the youth indoors would soon appear.
"Which part do you play, Charley — the Turkish Knight, do you not?" inquired the beauty, looking across the smoke of the fire to him on the other side.
"Yes, miss, the Turkish Knight," he replied diffidently.
"Is yours a long part?"
"Nine speeches, about."
"Can you repeat them to me? If so I should like to hear them."
The lad smiled into the glowing turf and began —
"Here come I, a Turkish Knight,
Who learnt in Turkish land to fight,"
continuing the discourse throughout the scenes to the concluding catastrophe of his fall by the hand of Saint George.
Eustacia had occasionally heard the part recited before. When the lad ended she began, precisely in the same words, and ranted on without hitch or divergence till she too reached the end. It was the same thing, yet how different. Like in form, it had the added softness and finish of a Raffaelle after Perugino, which, while faithfully reproducing the original subject, entirely distances the original art.
Charley's eyes rounded with surprise. "Well, you be a clever lady!" he said, in admiration. "I've been three weeks learning mine."
"I have heard it before," she quietly observed. "Now, would you do anything to please me, Charley?"
"I'd do a good deal, miss."
"Would you let me play your part for one night?"
"Oh, miss! But your woman's gown — you couldn't."
"I can get boy's clothes — at least all that would be wanted besides the mumming dress. What should I have to give you to lend me your things, to let me take your place for an hour or two on Monday night, and on no account to say a word about who or what I am? You would, of course, have to excuse yourself from playing that night, and to say that somebody — a cousin of Miss Vye's — would act for you. The other mummers have never spoken to me in their lives so that it would be safe enough; and if it were not, I should not mind. Now, what must I give you to agree to this? Half a crown?"
The youth shook his head
He shook his head again. "Money won't do it," he said, brushing the iron head of the firedog with the hollow of his hand.
"What will, then, Charley?" said Eustacia in a disappointed tone.
"You know what you forbade me at the Maypoling, miss," murmured the lad, without looking at her, and still stroking the firedog's head.
"Yes," said Eustacia, with a little more hauteur. "You wanted to join hands with me in the ring, if I recollect?"
"Half an hour of that, and I'll agree, miss."
Eustacia regarded the youth steadfastly. He was three years younger than herself, but apparently not backward for his age. "Half an hour of what?" she said, though she guessed what.
"Holding your hand in mine."
She was silent. "Make it a quarter of an hour," she said
"Yes, Miss Eustacia — I will, if I may kiss it too. A quarter of an hour. And I'll swear to do the best I can to let you take my place without anybody knowing. Don't you think somebody might know your tongue, miss?"
"It is possible. But I will put a pebble in my mouth to make is less likely. Very well; you shall be allowed to have my hand as soon as you bring the dress and your sword and staff. I don't want you any longer now."
Charley departed, and Eustacia felt more and more interest in life. Here was something to do: here was some one to see, and a charmingly adventurous way to see him. "Ah," she said to herself, "want of an object to live for — that's all is the matter with me!"
Eustacia's manner was as a rule of a slumberous sort, her passions being of the massive rather than the vivacious kind. But when aroused she would make a dash which, just for the time, was not unlike the move of a naturally lively person.
On the question of recognition she was somewhat indifferent. By the acting lads themselves she was not likely to be known. With the guests who might be assembled she was hardly so secure. Yet detection, after all, would be no such dreadful thing. The fact only could be detected, her true motive never. It would be instantly set down as the passing freak of a girl whose ways were already considered singular. That she was doing for an earnest reason what would most naturally be done in jest was at any rate a safe secret.
The next evening Eustacia stood punctually at the fuelhouse door, waiting for the dusk which was to bring Charley with the trappings. Her grandfather was at home tonight, and she would be unable to ask her confederate indoors.
He appeared on the dark ridge of heathland, like a fly on a Negro, bearing the articles with him, and came up breathless with his walk.
"Here are the things," he whispered, placing them upon the threshold. "And now, Miss Eustacia — "
"The payment. It is quite ready. I am as good as my word."